A long-delayed report

I mentioned some time ago that Bear McCreary, composer of the score for Battlestar Galactica, had released a book of piano arrangements from that show. After squeeing over this, I promised to report back once I’d had a chance to test them out . . . but I forgot all about it, until yhlee gave her own report. So here, much delayed, are my thoughts, on both the arrangements and my own experience with two sessions of playing.

So, um. First. My skill at playing piano? Not what it used to be. I took roughly seven or eight years of lessons, but that ended around 1993. I continued to play casually while I lived at home, but haven’t had regular access to a piano since 1998. Kept playing French horn until 2001, which means I can still read treble clef without too much trouble — mostly; once you get up into the ledger lines I have a lot more trouble, since horns rarely go above a high G — but gah, bass clef. When I sat down to try out these arrangements, I was actually having to do the thing where you go “Okay, that space is C, so this is E, G, okay, the note is an A-flat.” Really. My sight-reading ability warmed up with renewed use, but it’s still verrrrry slow.

The really funny part, though, is the extent to which I still have certain reflexes, but they don’t work right anymore. I’ll be going along, eyes on the music, okay now that left-hand chord is a fifth — but my hand doesn’t quiiiiiiite remember how it should position itself for a fifth, so I hit a sixth instead, and then have to stop and look at the keyboard to figure out why the music sounds terrible.

Mind you, this being Bear McCreary, sometimes the reason it sounds terrible is that I’m playing too slowly. And that’s where we get into the arrangements, instead of my butchery thereof.

See, the reason I love his music is its complexity. He has lots of odd, syncopated rhythms, weird harmonies that aren’t quite what you’d expect, extensive use of both the high and low ends of the staff, etc. And it turns out that all those things I like when I’m listening . . . become a nightmare when I have to play them. How do you count this bit? What the hell is that note three ledger lines below the staff? Is the chord crunchy because I overlooked an accidental, or because it’s a deliberately discordant suspension that would sound a lot better at tempo? At my level of non-skill, it can be surprisingly hard to tell.

I haven’t attempted everything yet; my focus has been on my favorite pieces. To rank those in order of difficulty:

“Roslin and Adama” (simplified) — with a bit more practice, I’d be able to play this one just fine, and probably upgrade to the non-simplified version soon after.

“Kara Remembers” — a small amount of practice would get me to the point where I could play the primo line of the duet. The secondo part, not so much; see previous statements re: odd syncopated rhythms, and fill in lots of sixteenth notes.

“The Shape of Things to Come” — a much larger amount of practice might bring this one within reach. I blundered my way through the entirety of this one during my second session, nowhere near up to tempo, and was very proud of myself for being able to dust off my musical skills and work out how to count the bits in the last line. (For the curious: it’s in 6/8, and each 3 consists of an eighth note, a sixteenth-note triplet, and another eighth note. Been a while since I had to deal with anything like that.) So this one is achievable, I think.

“Prelude to War” — ahahahaha NO. This one is, shall we say, aspirational. In large part for reasons of tempo: this one contains lots of very rapid sixteenth-notes in a pattern whose name I can’t remember. (What do you call it when you have a three-note arpeggio cycling across a 3/4 measure? GBDG BDGB DGBD. I know there’s a term for this.) Anyway, it’s is currently way out of my reach, though by the time I get to anything resembling competence with “The Shape of Things to Come,” I could probably tackle this one.

I should also try “Passacaglia,” which looks entirely feasible.

In general, I would say this book has been handing me my head. But if you ask me what I think of it . . . well, visualize me clapping my hands together and bouncing up and down with an idiot grin. Probably the best recommendation I can give is that after two sessions of playing at a friend’s house, I’m seriously looking into the possibility of acquiring a keyboard for myself. And not one of yer wimpy little short-range plastic keyboards, either, but an 88-key weighted-hammer machine — a piano that happens to be digital. (I’d get an actual piano, but we have even less space for that than we do for a keyboard, and it would be a pain in the ass to tune/move/etc.) I’ve purchased another book of piano arrangements — Cirque du Soleil music this time, which I can also report on later if there’s interest — and want to photocopy the stuff I left at home, too. So in short, this book has re-awakened my love of playing piano, and I really can’t think of a higher recommendation.

0 Responses to “A long-delayed report”

  1. eclectician

    I *loved* the soundtrack to BSG. One of my favorite bits of the show and probably the best music of any of the very small number of TV shows I’ve seen. Now we just need to figure out how to play the j-piano.

  2. Marie Brennan

    Yeah, rote memory + sheet music is most of what I can manage these days. (I can sort of do rote memory alone . . . so long as I don’t think about what I’m doing. As soon as I stumble, it’s all over, unless I have the sheet music to restart me.)

  3. Marie Brennan

    I don’t think I knew you played piano. Definitely try them! If you know the original music, it’s really interesting to see how he adapts things.

    • mrissa

      Good deal. He also does the score for Eureka, and there’s a bit of the S3 DVDs where he talks about the process. Fascinating guy. Wish we could get him to 4th St.

      • Marie Brennan

        That’s an excellent idea, and if you ever succeed I might just have to come out to Fourth Street. (I do want to, and someday I hope I will. But if you had Bear McCreary there, it would go a long way toward making me thumb my nose at the logistical difficulties otherwise slowing me down.)

  4. Marie Brennan

    “Dreilide Thrace Sonata No. 1” is one of those that a) looks scary and b) I don’t have any particular fondness for anyway; it’s less score-like and more classical, if that makes any sense, and what I really like is the score.

    Kind of like a hemiola?

    See, that’s what I was going to call it, until I looked “hemiola” up on Wikipedia and found it wasn’t what I thought. I mean, it’s sort of the same, and maybe the term gets used for this, too — but it isn’t quite the central meaning of that word.

    I should probably check out the music videos, though honestly I’m just as likely to keep my iPod on the piano bench beside me and listen to the original for comparison. Not quite as clear for explication, but I used to teach myself to play things by listening and picking it out on the keys, so that’s what I default to.

    As for unweighted keys . . . okay, the elitist snob in me says “yeah, for some purposes they’re fine. Like for small children and people who don’t know how to play piano to bash around on.” 🙂 There are probably some uses beyond that, too. If you’re used to the touch of a real piano, though, playing on flimsy plastic keys is just WEIRD and WRONG and NO.

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